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Posted: December 8, 2005
Written By: Dan "Tweak Monkey" Kennedy
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Notebooks are typically much slower than desktop PCs of the same generation for several reasons. The hardware is less powerful, offering slower CPUs, weaker video cards, smaller architecture and power sources, less memory, and extra programs and drivers required to support the hardware. However, the one piece of hardware that is dragging down the performance of a notebook most is probably the hard drive.
Any time a notebook reads or writes to the hard drive the performance will bottleneck. This is because the 2.5" hard drives packed inside that case typically spin at only 4200 or 5400 RPMs (where most current desktops come equipped with a 7200 RPM drive and upgrading to a 10,000 RPM drive is not that expensive). Upgrading the hard drive in a notebook generally is not cost effective, so I recommend the next best thing - upgrade the RAM.
Since all programs must go through the memory at some point, upgrading the RAM helps in many ways. Every time the memory overfills, the notebook has to dump some memory to the virtual memory, or swap file, which is stored on the hard drive. This tends to cause major slowdowns during multitasking. Extra memory allows more programs to be loaded at the same time with virtually no performance penalty. Since most notebooks come equipped with less than ideal memory, we'll help you level the playing field.
If you already have the memory and just want to install it already, read page 4.
Determine the "Sweet Spot"
Since I first started using computers, I have always determined a "sweet spot" for memory and CPUs for each operating system I've used. For example, when Windows 98 first launched, it seemed 64 MB was the magic number. In Windows 2000, 256 MB was perfect. In Windows XP, that number has increased again.
The sweet spot is the most effective amount of memory weighing in the cost of the memory. In other words, while 2 GB of RAM is obviously going to be better than 1 GB, the performance increase over 1 GB is not worth the extra ~$150 except in very rare cases.
To determine how much memory the system has, right click My Computer and choose Properties. Alternatively you can hold the Windows key and press the Pause/Break key. The information is supplied toward the bottom right.
The memory will probably cost too much and anything more than 64 MB is probably a waste. Consider buying a new notebook with a newer OS and hardware.
Windows 98 or Windows Millenium (Windows Me)
Considering what PC100 and PC133 memory costs today, it probably is not cost effective to upgrade the memory in a notebook with these operating systems unless you get a really deal on the memory.
The sweet spot for Windows 98 notebooks is around 128 MB to 196 MB. With Windows Me, the extra jump to 256 or even 384 MB may be worth it, especially if you have antivirus and/or anti-spyware software running in the background. Anything over 512 MB is overkill for these operating systems unless you use them for some very intense games (that may not run under these OSes anyway).
Windows XP Home or Professional
A notebook running Windows XP should have a minimum of 512 MB RAM. While it's true you can buy a new notebook with 256 MB (32-64 is usually dedicated to video though), it will be slow out of the box and ill-equipped for the tasks it needs to handle. Upgrading a new notebook to 512 MB is definitely worth the price of the memory, especially if it's on sale. Upgrading from 256 to 512 MB should cost under $50. Power users looking for even more speed should consider the jump to the true sweet spot of 1 GB (1024 MB). Remember this isn't a desktop and it has slower components so it will benfit from the extra memory. Also antivirus and anti-spyware programs will take a very hefty chunk of the free memory, so weigh this when considering the upgrade.
Windows XP Media Center Edition
The same rule applies as with XP Home and Professional, but considering the operating system's additional functionality, I wouldn't recommend less than 1 GB if the user is serious about speed. The price is usually right considering the speed bonus.
( If the memory is in this range and the notebook still seems very slow you need to go through and remove some startup items and clean the operating system out. For more information on this, check out our various tweak guides. )